Last week, my son told me that in his estimation every day is the same. Each day consists of the same activities within the house and every time he steps outside of the house, he does so to execute a plan of the day that is continually governed by adults telling him what to do. Whether it is a teacher or one of his coaches, he finds himself following directions and not getting the opportunity to do what he might prefer. Many would say, “Get over it. That’s the life of a kid. You can make the decisions when you’re an adult.” In fact, I believe most would say that. And if you think about it, most do say that every morning when sending our children off to school to sit in a classroom, execute a standard curriculum, and blindly assimilate within the learning assembly line where choice is an illusion. Truth is, many of us have made personal choice little more than an illusion in our lives as adults. The following quote from Dave Ramsey certainly is a little extreme, yet true for many: “We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have to impress people we don’t like.” Though not true for me, many people drive to jobs they don’t enjoy to work with people they don’t like merely to pay off the debt they should have never accumulated.

I have been taking some notes since my son’s comments and have come to two highly interrelated conclusions:

  1. We are uncomfortable with choice – When presented with an opportunity to make a decision, most of us don’t. We’d rather ask for more data, gather more input, or just ask for more time. The funny thing is that choosing not to make a choice is the choice most tend to make. Maybe we don’t want to get it wrong or we are concerned about upsetting others with an unpopular decision. Personally, I believe we are so uncomfortable with a choice because we aren’t conditioned to being “The Decider” on things that truly matter. Yes, even in the customizable world in which we live, choice continues to be an illusion (at least when it comes to things that truly matter).
  2. We prefer to be told what to do – My son complains about always being told what to do (at least in his mind), but when we ask him what he might like to do instead, he is at a loss. His standard response is his trademark smirk, coupled with “play video games.” On occasion he will surprise us with an especially creative idea, but like most, he is more content complaining about always being told what to do. I see it at work as well. Granted, I am in the military, but I am continually amazed at the number of people who have trouble with the way things are, but when given the opportunity to shape things, they ultimately talk themselves out of taking action.

I will freely admit that I have not always been comfortable making decisions and as a result, though I’m loathed to admit it, earlier in life I preferred to be told what to do. The reason was the lack opportunity. Opportunity to have a say in impactful decisions. Even during my days at the Naval Academy, choices were limited at best. They were an illusion and often a trap: choose wrong and pay the price. I often write about the value of learning through mistakes in favor of punishment. Those of you who know me are well aware that I learn by making mistakes on a daily basis. My wife and I afford our son the opportunity to both have an influence on the decisions we make as a family (it’s his life too) and make quite a few on his own. Some of his friends (and I am sure ours) are blown away by the amount of say he has in informing/shaping our familial decisions and those regarding his life in particular. Admittedly, I cringe at some of the decisions he makes, but I let it play out. When doing so, one of two things happens: he learns that he chose poorly, or I learn that my preferred course of action was wrong. When it comes to my profession, the amount of importance I place on input from our most junior teammates certainly gives pause to many of my peers. Decision-making is not a trait, it’s a skill. A skill that far too many people do not have and a skill that is not deliberately cultivated early enough in life. This is the very reason we have so many incapable decision makers in our world. Like any craft, we won’t get good at it unless we practice it regularly, and we just don’t.

My son’s complaint is one heard in every home. Likewise, it’s the foundation of a saying across the Navy, “A bitching Sailor is a happy Sailor.” Complaints and gripes are valid and often times provide us with the foundation to make things even better. The goal is not to stop the complaints, but to develop our children and teammates so that they provide a viable alternative to that which they are complaining about and that they are prepared earlier in life to confidently make sound decisions. We need to do a lot less of telling others what to do and a lot more coaching. And when we realize we are coaches, we realize that they are are also on the field of life. They are not on the sidelines preparing to live their lives (children) and preparing to execute the mission (teammates), they are ON the field along with us.

  • How comfortable are you with making substantive decisions?
  • Do you find yourself spending more time telling others what to do, or listening to them share their thoughts on what should be done?
  • How are you helping others to learn the art of decision-making?